Vocabulary instruction has always been a challenge for me. I believe strongly that students need to learn vocabulary in context, but I have realized recently that there are concepts related to vocabulary learning that are bigger than meanings of individual words. This awareness of word concepts is crucial for building the skills necessary for students to learn words when they are reading independently.
My big goals for students include understanding word parts, determining word meaning through the context, inferring new ways authors use words, using appropriate vocabulary in writing, and learning content-specific vocabulary. I want my instruction to be as much about helping kids become strategic and independent in their word learning as it is about learning the meanings of new words. Picture books are a powerful tool for helping students see the sophistication of word learning in simple, accessible ways.
I recently discovered the book Gumption! by Elise Broach and shared it with several classes in the library. Readers often take different meanings away from the same book, yet I also know that some books invite certain kinds of conversations. I used the book Gumption! to start a conversation about using context cues to determine the meaning of a word. The word “gumption” is unfamiliar to most children, and is used over and over again without actually being defined. Readers infer the meaning and change their thinking based on new contexts provided. This book helps students at all grade levels think about the ways we learn new words, by attending to different ways they are used over time. This is also a great book to begin conversations about coming across unknown words in reading.
Building Word Understanding
I love to use picture books that focus on one word. There are several books like this in which the word is defined or described on every page. Three of my favorites are Courage by Bernard Waber, Misery Is a Smell In Your Backpack by Harriet Ziefert, and Hope Is an Open Heart by Lauren Thompson. By giving one defining statement per page, these books actually show the word’s meaning over and over again in a way that is accessible to kids. Even though readers may not fully understand the word by the end of the book, the many examples help kids begin to understand sophisticated words in a more conceptual way.
Zero Is The Leaves On The Tree by Betsy Franco is another book in this category with a vocabulary and math focus. This book is very similar to those I’ve listed above, in that it defines the main word zero in a variety of conceptual ways for readers.
Ubiquitous: Celebrating Nature’s Survivors is a collection of poems and information by Joyce Sidman. The word ubiquitous is one that many children won’t know. After reading and rereading the book, students will be able to make a good guess about the word, and how the poems go together as part of the title.
One of the important things we want our kids to understand when it comes to vocabulary is that often words are derived from other words. This is a difficult concept, but one that carries them through a great deal of word learning. If kids can understand how parts of words are often found in unfamiliar words, they have a strategy for tackling many new words as they encounter them. If they understand the concept of word parts as they relate to meaning, then as they learn about Latin roots, prefixes, etc. they will see how some words are formed from other word parts.
I like to use fun light books to introduce this concept because it is a difficult one. Two of my favorites are Animal Soup by Todd Doodler and Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems by Jack Prelutsky. Both books combine known words in humorous ways. Animal Soup is a lift-the-flap book of animal riddles. Each riddle’s answer combines the names of two common animals. In Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant: And Other Poems, Jack Prelutsky writes poems about nonsense words that he creates combining two words. One example is the Ballpoint Penguin. Both of these books invite rousing discussions on word parts.
Content Specific Vocabulary
We want students to understand that there are certain words that are content-specific. For example, when we study rocks and minerals, I want children to know that there are words they will hear over and over, and that this is true of almost any topic. I introduce the concept of content-specific vocabulary with books like A Is for Astronaut: Exploring Space from A to ZÂby Traci N. Todd. In this book, the author presents many words connected to space.
If I want to start the conversation with a lighter read, I might use LMNO Peas by Keith Baker. This is an alphabet book, but a humorous one. The text is about a community of peas and their jobs. It introduces many words that define the kinds of work people do.
Classics like Maps and Globes by Jack Knowlton and newer books like For Good Measure: The Ways We Say How Much, How Far, How Heavy, How Big, How Old by Ken Robbins are texts that introduce words that will support our students’ academic vocabulary. These two are especially good for vocabulary that spans grade levels — words that they will hear and use throughout their lives.
Specific and Important Words
Even though Billy and Milly, Short and Silly! by Eve Feldman has no connection to important words, I like to go back to it (after we have enjoyed reading this fun book several times) to discuss important words. This book is a collection of VERY short stories — each told in only 3-4 words. I like to use this book as a way to help students determine which content words in their reading are so important you can’t understand the text without them. It’s a terrific book for emphasizing that being wordy or producing lots of words as a young writer isn’t nearly as important as being precise in choosing only the words you need to make your point.
If I want students to build vocabulary and go beyond the use of ordinary words in their writing, Big, Bigger, Biggest! by Nancy Coffelt works as a wonderful conversation starter. This book uses a simple format with various examples of descriptive words. It’s another springboard for talking about choosing a specific word that matches what children are trying to say as writers.
The Unique Use of Words We Know
Another big idea that I want my students to understand is that sometimes words we know can be used in unusual ways. A Sock Is a Pocket for Your Toes: A Pocket Book by Elizabeth Garton Scanlon is a fine book to introduce this concept. Scanlon takes a look at different objects that are “pockets” for other things. A conversation like this can help open students’ minds to the unique ways they use words in their own writing.